Name and shame Western firms helping autocrats monitor own citizens

When I wrote The Blogging Revolution in 2007 and 2008, I couldn’t imagine the ever-increasing focus on Western “security” firms working alongside repressive states to censor and spy on their people. I investigated this in the book (and the latest 2011 edition, just published in India, examines the reality during the Arab revolutions).

Bloomberg has released a wonderful series on this very subject, Wired for Repression:

Bloomberg’s series “Wired for Repression” reveals how Western companies provide surveillance systems to authoritarian countries that claim some of the world’s worst human rights records including Iran, Syria, Bahrain and Tunisia. The newest artillery for repressive regimes, the gear allows authorities to intercept their citizens’ e-mails and text messages, monitor Internet activity and locate political targets through cell phone technology. Brandishing transcripts of personal communications and records of whereabouts, officials now routinely use such information to confront, arrest and torture dissidents.

Here’s one striking story:

The intelligence operative sits in a leather club chair, laptop open, one floor below the Hilton… Kuala Lumpur’s convention rooms, scanning the airwaves for spies.

In the salons above him, merchants of electronic interception demonstrate their gear to government agents who have descended on the Malaysian capital in early December for the Wiretapper’s Ball, as this surveillance industry trade show is called.

As he tries to detect hacker threats lurking in the wireless networks, the man who helps manage a Southeast Asian country’s Internet security says there’s reason for paranoia. The wares on offer include products that secretly access your Web cam, turn your cell phone into a location-tracking device, recognize your voice, mine your e-mail for anti-government sentiment and listen to supposedly secure Skype calls.

He isn’t alone watching his back at this cyber-arms bazaar, whose real name is ISS World.

For three days, attendees digging into dim sum fret about losing… trade secrets… to hackers, or falling prey to phone interception by rival spies. They also get a tiny taste of what they’ve unleashed on the outside world, where their products have become weapons in the hands of regimes that use the gear to track and torture dissidents.

“I’m concerned about my calls or Internet being monitored, because that’s what they sell,” says Meling Mudin, 35, a Kuala Lumpur-based information-technology security consultant who takes defensive measures as he roams the exhibits. “When I make phone calls, I step out of the hotel, I don’t use my computer and I also don’t use the wireless services provided.”

ISS, which convenes every few months in cities from Dubai to Brasilia, is the hub of the surveillance trade. In recent years, countries such as Syria, Iran and… Tunisia… bulked up their monitoring by turning to some of ISS’s corporate sponsors, such as… Italy’s Area SpA and… Germany’sUtimaco Safeware AG (USA)… and Trovicor GmbH, a Bloomberg Newsinvestigation… showed.

Business is booming, with annual revenue of $3 billion to $5 billion growing as much as 20 percent a year, ISS organizer Jerry Lucas estimates.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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